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Faith group’s advocacy speeds prison reform bill

WASHINGTON (BP) — Years of prison reform advocacy is reaping fruit for Prison Fellowship with the passage of a bill termed a “first step” in rehabilitating federal prisoners and reducing recidivism.

Churches are also a crucial player in preventing incarceration, reforming prisoners and speeding their productivity upon release, Christian advocates said after the U.S. House passed the First Step Act on Tuesday (May 22).

The House’s overwhelming bipartisan approval will hopefully speed passage of the bill in the U.S. Senate, Craig DeRoche, Prison Fellowship senior vice president of advocacy and public policy said in a press conference today.

The House passed the bill just weeks after Second Chance Month, an annual April Prison Fellowship initiative for prison reform supported by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and 150 other groups.

“Congress put their values first over political party or maybe ideological leaning and came together to do something that was very good here for America,” DeRoche said, “and something that has been proven to work in the states to improve public safety. We’re hopeful that the (House) numbers, that 360 to 59, will give it momentum to get through the Senate this year.”

The act incorporates individualized risk assessments and expands in-prison programs designed to reduce recidivism, but fails to address sentencing guidelines. Currently, neither a majority of Congress nor U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions support sentencing guideline changes, DeRoche said.

“That is why the administration focused on prison reform right now,” DeRoche said, since bipartisan Congressional consensus is believed to exist. “Prison Fellowship has advocated for sentencing reform since our founding…. We think it is very important that we change the federal sentencing guidelines.

“Prison Fellowship was very active in supporting the Charles Colson Task Force federal prison reform,” he said, which included sentencing reform recommendations. “We do think it’s critical. We think it’s important. But it’s also clear that there is not consensus, that a bill could not be passed through Congress this spring.”

The bill would bring relief to 180,000 men and women incarcerated today, DeRoche said.

“Because 95 percent of those currently incarcerated will be released and return to their communities,” he said, “this needed legislation will address safety concerns while helping these men and women become more productive and better citizens while fewer people return to crime.”

Tiheba Williams-Bain, a Christian advocate for decarceration who benefitted from Prison Fellowship during a 10-year prison term, encourages churches to be more active in addressing criminal justice concerns. People often look to faith groups for support within and outside prison walls, she said.

“The church is an intricate part of society,” Williams-Bain said. “When we come home from prison, we look to that faith group to give us the same solace we sought out from prison, because everyone seems to shun who we are and what we are trying to do, as far as reintegrate and redeem ourselves.”

Williams-Bain, a member of (Pentecostal) Calvary Temple Christian Center in Bridgeport, Conn., received certification as a religious educator from the Dorchester Bible Institute while imprisoned in Danbury, Conn., and Fort Worth, Texas. She advocates for prison reform through the group she founded, Women Against Mass Incarceration, and mentors women released from prison.

Churches can help by ministering to youth to discourage behavior leading to incarceration, opening their doors to people who were formerly incarcerated, and giving the former prison population a valuable voice in designing programs to help within and outside prison.

“When people are coming home from prison, I would suggest you open your doors and open your arms and your hearts and not be judgmental,” she said. “And listen to what they’re saying and help form some sort of alliance to help them have a place when they come home.”

Federally run programs are helpful, she said, but “rehabilitation doesn’t necessarily come from all those programs; it comes from the mindset of the person that utilizes the programs.”

Among First Step’s measures, the bill:

— directs the Department of Justice to develop and implement a success-proven risk and needs assessment system (RNAS) to determine prisoners’ individual needs;

— directs the Bureau of Prisons to use RNAS data to place prisoners in such proven recidivism reduction programs as substance abuse treatment, job skills training, mental health treatment and GED programs;

— incorporates incentives encouraging prisoners’ sincere efforts to improve, including prerelease credits which could allow prisoners to complete their sentences in a residential reentry center or home confinement.

Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) sponsored by the bill.